CHICAGO - Chase Utley took a small step forward in his recovery from thumb surgery on Wednesday as doctors removed the bulky cast he had worn since the July 1 procedure.

Utley, who tore a ligament from a bone in his right thumb while sliding headfirst into second base in a loss to the Reds on June 28, said doctors were pleased with his progress. At the time of the surgery, the Phillies estimated they would be without their second baseman for 8 weeks, which would be around Aug. 26. But Utley said he is hopeful he will be able to return sooner. Doctors want him to wear a brace for the next 3 weeks, after which he thinks he will be able to return to competitive action quickly.

"We still have to be smart about everything," said Utley, who is hitting .277, with a .383 on-base percentage, .849 on-base plus slugging percentage and 11 home runs. "We want it to heal. That 5- to 6-week [postoperation] period is apparently how long it takes to heal properly. At that point, I think we'll have to play it by ear, but that's when I'd like to start getting back into it."

Although the Phillies made it known they are looking for an experienced infielder, they have yet to find a palatable deal. They have said they do not view such a move as a necessity. After Utley's injury, the Phillies went 9-8 to close out the first half, hitting .234 with a .285 on-base percentage in the process. But with each passing day, the benefit of trading for an infielder diminishes.

Veteran third baseman Placido Polanco (elbow) remains on track to return from the disabled list within a week. In fact, he could travel to Chicago as soon as tomorrow. Polanco was scheduled to play in rehab games last night and tonight, at which point he hoped to be ready to be activated.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel did not offer a timetable, but didn't rule out Polanco being in the lineup tomorrow or Sunday.

"He might join us in a couple days," Manuel said. "We'll see how it goes."

Polanco, 34, leads the Phillies with a .318 batting average, despite battling soreness in his elbow since late April, when he was hit by a pitch in Atlanta.

Durbin returns

Workhorse reliever Chad Durbin, sidelined since June 24 with a hamstring strain, was activated and pitched a scoreless seventh last night. Despite the 3-week absence, he leads the bullpen with 36 1/3 innings. In 29 appearances, he has posted a 3.22 ERA.

Durbin made rehab appearances on Saturday and Monday for Class A Clearwater, striking out three in three scoreless innings.

"I was more concerned about getting a ball to first base or having to break off the mound," said Durbin, who was hurt June 23 when he attempted to field a bunt in the ninth inning of a win over the Indians. "I had a couple of foul balls where I break off the mound. That's more about what I was testing, to see if the hammy was ready to do that kind of stuff."

To make room for Durbin, the Phillies designated righthander Nelson Figueroa for assignment, meaning the club must put him on waivers before sending him to the minors. Figueroa already made it through waivers once, when the Phillies designated him for assignment in May. He was recalled in late June and went on to allow only one hit and one walk while striking out seven in 7 1/3 scoreless innings over four relief appearances.

Keeping Figueroa likely would have meant parting with Rule 5 pick David Herndon, who, according to major league rules, must be offered back to his original club (the Angels) if he is removed from the active roster. The Phillies want to hang on to the 24-year-old Herndon. He has a heavy sinker that averages 92 to 94 mph and a slider they think can develop into a solid out pitch. They also think Herndon, a ground-ball pitcher who has a 3.73 ERA in 28 appearances, has pitched well enough to keep his spot. *

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